Peruvian Cross Country Champion Ruso Covarubias is used to vertiginous Andean singletrack.
By Christa Fraser
Photo: Steve Ripley
Peak-bagging Kilimanjaro. Rafting the Futaleufu. Mountain biking Whistler. Heli-skiing Alaska …
I have my dream list of adventure travel trips although each intimidates me for one reason or another. For one, I am built like a Corgi, lots of torso and not much in the way of leg length—a fact which usually guarantees me a place at the back of the pack. Two, I am perpetually broke and these are not cheap endeavors. Three, I am perpetually broke. And finally, I’m a wimp.
To be clear, I have been called every variation of the word wimp at some point or another. I’m not proud of this but I have made peace with this and other shortcomings and learned to live with them. Learning to travel with them is another matter entirely.
Recently, I took a last-minute mountain biking trip to Peru. It wasn’t on my official to-do list yet but this trip had some qualities that would make it a perfect place to hone my future as an adventure traveler. First off, it has really high mountains—the second loftiest in the world after the Himalaya. Clearly, I would have plenty of chances to confront my desperate fear of heights and technical descents. Secondly, I would be going with perfect strangers. Finally, everyone else would be way better at biking (and geography, but we’ll get to that later) than me. This would give me a chance to perfect my bringing-up-the-rear/holding-back-the-entire-group skills.
In short, this trip would allow me to hone my adventure travel philosophy so I could start marking off my adrenaline-fueled, scare-the-crap-out-of-myself tick list. Here are a few of my hard-earned lessons:
Lesson #1: Never Panic.
And if you do, make sure there are no witnesses.
After a 14-hour flight to a foreign destination, it’s nice to find the people you’re supposed to meet, be driven to your hotel and sleep away the exhaustion. It’s not so nice to be stranded in an airport 6,000 miles from home, unable to find your host.
I was to meet up with Mike “Enrico Suave” Brcic, the owner of Fernie Fat Tire Mountain Biking Adventures in British Columbia, and Eduardo “Wayo” Stein, who owns Inka Adventures Mountain Biking Tours in Lima, Peru. When my flight arrived shortly before midnight, I couldn’t find either of them. Granted, I had zero idea what they looked like and no way to contact them.
A knot of fear formed in my throat. I was a female foreigner alone in the Lima International Airport with an enormous plastic bike case, two heavy bags and a pitiful traveling budget. It was approaching three in the morning. Taxi drivers and shady characters were offering to take me anywhere I wanted, or so they said. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and intimidated by the dense circle of men yelling and waving signs at me. I was hopeful that Mike and Wayo would arrive any minute.
After a while, dark thoughts percolated into my reasoning: I am stuck by myself in Peru and my return flight isn’t for 10 days. I am going to travel alone. I am going to get mugged/robbed/sick. I will never make it home again.
I called my fiancé, in tears and utterly panicked.
“Did you get there ok? How was your flight?”
“I am stuck in the airport—by myself.”
“What? Have you talked to them?
“You can’t reach their cell phones?”
“No. I don’t have their numbers.”
“You left the country … to meet two guys you’ve never seen before … in an airport in the middle of the night … and you didn’t bring their cell numbers?”
At 3:30 a.m., Mike finally arrived and I figured out why we hadn’t been able to meet up. Wayo had arrived on time to pick me up but I had waited in customs for Mike to arrive; only Mike’s flight was delayed several hours. Wayo couldn’t go through customs to find me, so he left when I never came out of the gate.
“Were you OK waiting alone?” Mike asked.
“Oh yeah, I was fine. I knew it would all work out.”
Lesson #2: Take care of your basic needs
In other words, sleep/eat/heed the call wherever and whenever you can.
Most adventure travel trips are pretty cush and this one was no different. Other than sleeping in the airport that first night, we were well taken care of. Wayo selected picturesque yet cheap hotels and excellent restaurants for us. A support van with helpful drivers followed us when possible or met up with us at key spots. Peruvian energy bars and fresh drinking water were offered to us throughout the day, as well as the opportunity to wimp out and hitch a ride or nap for the rest of the day’s miles.
Nonetheless, we were riding our mountain bikes on vertiginous livestock trails and vestigial Inca trails in the high Andes through remote Quechua-speaking villages. There were no port-a-potties and in many cases there weren’t any bushes. I have a bladder better suited to a squirrel and I was the only woman riding.
I’ll admit it—I answered my bladder’s call wherever necessary, including just off the pathways to a few Inca ruins, which could be one of the reasons I came home with a bad case of Atahualpa’s Revenge.
Or it could be because I welcomed cultural opportunities that forced me to forego the essential rules of eating while traveling abroad. Every guidebook says to try the local specialties (even if roasted guinea pig or alpaca isn’t your ideal protein source), making sure to avoid unbottled water and ice, to peel any fruit or potatoes yourself, and to be certain that any animal flesh is well cooked.
But what do you do if the locals offer you homegrown potatoes right from their field, fresh cheese and a swig of rotgut (popular Peruvian varieties are made from fermented corn or spit and known as Chicha or fermented sugar cane known as cañaso)? In the spirit of cultural sharing, I felt compelled to at least take a bite and a sip even though I was certain that drinking fermented spit was going beyond courteous behavior. (That’s what all those pre-trip shots were for, weren’t they?) I knew I would never again stand in that same field in Peru with that farmer and his family. I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity for a cross-cultural bond. But when my stomach turned on me the next day, I remembered that I didn’t peel those potatoes.
Lesson #3: Check your ego at the airport
After all, you’re not there to whine or win.
In a video clip from our trip, there is a scene that makes me laugh. A camera mounted on the steer tube of journalist Steve Ripley’s bike captures an epic ride along the steep banks of the Urubamba River. Eventually, Steve stops to rest with most of the group. The camera turns back to the trail and for an interminable time nothing happens. They were waiting for me for so long that the tape ran out before I arrived. The narrow singletrack with a certain-death cliff face on one side had me pedaling at glacial speed. Yet, when I finally wheeled up, they assured me they had only waited a couple of minutes.
Living with a group for several days or weeks requires diplomacy. I did my part by never complaining even though the riding was somewhat beyond my skill, fitness and fear thresholds. They did theirs by never pointing out the obvious to me and by noting that the extra time was useful for taking photographs.
Instead of feeling ashamed, I quickly learned that there are certain advantages to being the slowest of any trip. For starters, you usually have no witnesses to moments of lameness such as random exclamations of abject fear or pain. No one has to see you anxiously walk your bike past a bull after you’ve bragged to them about growing up on a farm and how tough it made you. No one will witness you walk the corners you can’t pull (in my defense, not making them could have meant falling off the edge of the world!), nor will they see you eat trail repeatedly.
And instead of feeling like you have to prove something by making excuses for why you aren’t as fast or as skilled, let your co-travelers help you when appropriate. I had to be pushed up a hill to the village of Rosaspata at 12,000 feet while in the grip of altitude sickness. Ruso “Turbo Ruso” Covarubias, the four-time national cross-country champion of Peru who grew up in that area, did the honors easily. And you know what, I welcomed the help. Let’s face it, sometimes your choice is between eating a fat slice of humble pie or holding up the entire group while you try to prove something. I’ll take the pie and the high fives at the top, thank you.
Lesson # 4: Don’t forget that you are representing your native country
But if you do forget, everyone else will remind you.
Estonia is somewhere near Finland, Poland is somewhere near Russia and Yugoslavia. Canada is north of the US and Peru is south. Overall, I feel pretty good about my geography skills—when I’m in the United States. Time and again, I was shown up as the epitome of the ignorant American, particularly in regards to geography and world politics.
The two Canadians, Mike and Steve, embarrassingly knew more about US policy and geography than I did. At some point, it became a funny albeit painful joke to ask me about geography or politics. The less I knew, the funnier it became. When Canadians can name the leader of each province and know details about the political history of each but I can only name Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is clearly a problem. But I countered my ignorance with a lot of curiosity.
Acting like you know everything when you clearly don’t is a certain recipe for adding “ugly” and “overbearing” to the stereotypes that Americans are often pegged with abroad. So if you’re headed down that road, stop and take out a guide to good traveling behavior. You may be the only American some people meet. In several villages, it was apparent that my citizenship, if not my skin and hair color, was a novelty. Leave them with something good to say. But don’t worry—someone will still make fun of you.
Lesson 5: Leave something good behind
And not just your Soles.
It’s easy to be separated from your money while traveling. You have to be vigilant that you are getting back proper change in an interaction, that you are being charged fairly and that the money you receive is real. In Peru, I lost count of the times that I got a fake five Soles piece as change (Peru’s national currency is the “Nuevo Sol”). Yet I couldn’t use the fake Soles anywhere because Peruvians are alert to this scam, so I’d be out about $1.50 U.S. each time.
Peru is a cash-poor country by US standards, with a per capita income at less than $6,000 per year. This means that the average full-suspension mountain bike is worth a good chunk of a year’s income. Throw in a pair of nice Italian cycling shoes, a Camelbak, a helmet, etc., and you’re riding half a year’s worth of Peruvian income. Still want to haggle over that alpaca scarf?
Admittedly, travelers bring in a lot of money to local economies. In turn, locals add authenticity to a traveler’s vacation. But we wanted to benefit the villages we passed through in a more direct way.
Mike passed out notebooks and pencils to the children in several small villages. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea because in the future all foreigners may be expected to bring gifts, but interacting with dozens of excited kids at a time was the best part of the trip. It felt good to give them something practical. And I am sure that teaching them how to high-five and say, “Trick-or-treat, smell my feet,” will have a lasting impact on the community, for better or for worse.
Adventure travel is pricey (although a good lesson in the relativity of being broke) and it can be scary to push your physical limits so far from home. But I can think of no better way to get to know the rest of the world and our place in it. At the least, it helps with geography. In my case, I learned that diplomacy counts more than pride or physical prowess, money isn’t the only currency and you stop being a wimp the minute you try something that makes you nervous.
Kilimanjaro, here I come—anyone care to give me a push?
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